A second wave of investment in anaerobic digestion (AD) is set to re-shape the energy debate in Northern Ireland according to a senior manager at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS).

Ian Marshall, who is business development manager at IGFS and a former Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president, believes that agriculture will be at the very heart of an energy revolution that is set to take place over the coming years.

Marshall, who was a former Independent Senator on the Seanad’s agricultural panel, is confident that this can be achieved in ways that will not increase competition for land at farm level.

He said that driving all of this will be the adoption of new technologies that add value to the perceived ‘waste streams’ generated by the industry at the present time.

Marshall said: “Looking ahead, agriculture will not be seen as part of the problem, where these matters are concerned.

“Rather the industry will be regarded as a pivotal part of the solution.”

But making this happen, according to Marshall, will require a combined push by the business sector, academia and government.”

He said; “The days of everyone working separately, when it comes to delivering future energy solutions, are over.

“Everyone with an interest in this critically important issue must come to together and work for the common good.”

Marshall cites anaerobic digestion (AD) as a technology that can be significantly developed to help meet Northern Ireland’s energy needs for the future.

Today the sector is helping to meet green energy needs through the production of electricity only.

The former UFU president explained said this “is only scratching the surface” of what it could be used for.

“The heat produced by AD operations can be used as a valuable energy source. This potential remains totally untapped at the present time.

“We also know that many of the gases produced by way of AD can have significant commercial values in their own right.”

“For example, methane can be used to produce amino acids, a fundamental component of protein.

“So, there is no reason why we cannot produce significantly higher proportions of the protein needed for animal diets, thereby reducing our reliance on imported soya. In addition, ammonia is an extremely effective carrier of hydrogen,” Marshall added.

He believes that AD hubs will be developed across Northern Ireland which would be commercially owned and managed.

According to Marshall this would create new agri-opportunities: “Farmers would supply the slurry needed to drive these operations.

“Step one would be the separation of the slurry into its solid and liquid components. Farmers would retain the liquid component, which would be subsequently used as a fertiliser.

“The solid fractions of the slurry supplied would be used as an energy source, courtesy of the AD operation.

Marshall said that farmers would be paid for slurry solids they supply and a firm commitment to AD in this way should also allow carbon credits to be drawn down by the producers involved.

“Extracting valuable organic fertilisers from the digestate leaving the AD plant will also add to the economic feasibility of the entire process.”

“The commercial development of these hubs by organisations not directly involved in production agriculture takes the pressure off individual farmers to establish their own AD operations.

“Such an approach will also reduce the amount of competition for land at farm level, from an energy production perspective,” he added.

Some of the political foundations required to make all of this happen were put in place by Northern Ireland Executive ministers prior to last year’s moth balling of the Stormont institutions.

But according to Marshall there needs to be further impetus to make anaerobic digestion ambitions in Northern Ireland a reality.

“We need real political buy-in to develop a meaningful green energy sector in Northern Ireland and this will require a functioning executive at Stormont, he added.